I should start out by explaining that, until recently, I had only ever watched one episode of Star Trek: Voyager in my entire life. That was a recording of the pilot episode ("Caretaker"), some years ago.

Recently, I had a chance to pick up a secondhand copy of Season 4 on DVD at a low price, and I shrugged and went for it. Then I started watching those episodes in my spare time. (Note: I did watch one other episode first. When I saw that S04E01 was Part 2 of "Scorpion," I went to Amazon and paid to stream Part 1 of "Scorpion" first, so that I'd have a clue about what was happening in the second half of that storyline.)

Since then, I've gradually been working my way through Season 4. Things were going fairly well until I watched "Message in a Bottle" (S04E14) and was extremely confused by some of the assumptions that were used to set up the episode's plot in the first several minutes.

Here are five assumptions which caught me off guard as I tried to appreciate the plot, but I'm not asking anyone to justify the first four. Let's just accept them and move on from there, okay?

  1. Until the time of "Message in a Bottle," either it has been utterly impossible for anyone on Voyager to create a full backup of the Doctor's personality software and store it for a rainy day . . . or else they simply never thought to take the trouble?

  2. It is impossible to change this sad situation in the scant minutes left in their window of opportunity to successfully transmit a signal to the Starfleet vessel at the other end of an alien communications network which Seven of Nine has just discovered. (Because that other vessel is nearly out of range of the alien relay station nearest them, and once they are out of range, that will abruptly terminate the possible communications link. I could swallow this part about the impending deadline, actually!)

  3. It is impossible to send a successful signal through the network if it is simpler and less complicated than the format of the Doctor's holographic programming. (I would have thought a simple e-mail could be broadcast just as "strongly," and could be repeated hundreds of times to improve the chances of at least one coherent copy making it all the way through the interference, but what do I know about futuristic telecommunications equipment?)

  4. It is impossible to retain a copy of the Doctor's personality right there on Voyager at the same time that they are transmitting it through the alien network. (Although they do, as we learn later this episode, manage to keep copies of all the medical databases which the Doctor has access to.)

  5. Captain Janeway already knows all of the above, and must be factoring those items into her command decisions, at the moment that she asks the Doctor to volunteer for this special "away mission." She freely concedes that using unfamiliar alien technology to send him thousands of light-years (and hoping that he'll be lucky enough to survive the return trip, as well) is a situation in which "a lot of things could go wrong" -- for instance, his program could be lost in transit. So she's not making it a flat order. But she wants him to do it anyway, and he says: "Far be it from me to turn down an opportunity to become a hero. I'm ready."

With an effort, I can tell myself, "Okay, Assumptions One through Four must be taken at face value, as simple facts which Janeway is painfully aware she can't change in the very limited time available. They don't make much sense, but roll with it and move on! Granting that this is the situation, she has to do something on that basis, right?"

But on Assumption Five, I just felt flabbergasted all the way through the rest of the episode! Why would Janeway be in such a hurry to kick the Doctor out the door? Afterwards, I reminded myself that people who were watching each episode as it came out, all through the show's seven-year run, might have had a different perspective from mine (as the guy who "came in late").

So here is an expanded version of the question I summarized in this post's title.

The Question: Are there crucial factors I don't know about -- something established in one or more scenes during the first three seasons, for instance -- which would cause Captain Janeway's decision to risk sending the Doctor away to the Alpha Quadrant, to deliver a message to Starfleet even if he never makes it back to her ship, to actually make sense as a responsible command decision under the circumstances? (Despite the obviously increased risk of members of her crew later dying from illnesses or injuries which the Doctor probably could have fixed in the nick of time, but which someone else (such as Tom Paris) might not be able to?)

Because right now, viewing it from my perspective as a guy who's only seen S01E01, S03E26, and the first half of S04, before reaching "Message in a Bottle" -- it seems as if Janeway is basically saying, "Hey, I am perfectly willing to throw away our one and only fully-qualified Medical Officer if it means there is at least a fighting chance that he will be able to give Starfleet the simple message that we are still alive and well, albeit sixty thousand light-years away from home and afraid it will take us several decades to get back where we belong!"

I cannot wrap my head around the "logic" of saying that just sending that message, even if the price turns out to be losing the Doctor's services aboard Voyager, is a cost-effective maneuver.

I mean, I try to imagine James T. Kirk making the decision to send Bones McCoy away on a probable one-way mission under similar circumstances . . . and I just can't see it happening. (Even if Bones were an Artificial Intelligence instead of a flesh-and-blood human being, I still don't think Kirk would even seriously consider squandering him on "messenger boy" duty.)

Not if just telling Starfleet HQ where Kirk's ship had gotten to were the only important message to be carried on that trip! But there could be other vital data involved, which upped the stakes and justified an extreme effort.

So that's why I'm wondering, in all sincerity . . . was there something else, not explicitly mentioned in the script of this episode, but established at some other time in the series' long run (before or even after this episode), which plausibly could have been weighing heavily on Captain Janeway's mind at this moment? Something which she felt absolutely must be communicated to Starfleet at the earliest possible opportunity, even at the risk of losing her Medical Officer? (And then expecting Tom Paris to frantically try to take up the slack in that department for decades to come, which even Paris himself felt was not going to be a workable idea in the long run?)

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    “until recently, I had only ever watched one episode of Star Trek: Voyager in my entire life” — precious memories of a happier time. Commented Mar 18, 2017 at 11:49
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    Far more thought and effort went into writing this question than the episode it's asking about.
    – 1252748
    Commented Mar 18, 2017 at 18:03
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    @1252748 -- while I appreciate the compliment, the funny thing is that I was honestly hoping that someone would tell me that this was not the case; that there were other things which Janeway logically could have felt that Starfleet desperately needed to know as soon as possible! (And which longtime fans of the show would have remembered when they saw this, even if the writers failed to mention those things.) Thus far, the two answers I've gotten are not supporting my hopeful optimism, though -- I'm increasingly suspecting that Janeway simply made a Bad Call in the heat of the moment.
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 23:27
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    @Lorendiac If you're enjoying it, I'd recommend watching the series from the start, Cpt.Janeway is infuriating on occasion but I loved the series as a whole(I've watched it 4 times over the years). ...and try to take some ST situations with a spoon of sugar as sometimes it's just a means to an end :]
    – n00dles
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 13:41
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    @Matt for the record I agree. Seemed very strange to risk the newfound knowledge and experiences of the doctor's matrix. A Janeway hologram with limited interactions but a key piece of "authentication" proof, similar the professor from I,Robot hologram... "I'm sorry. My responses are limited. You must ask the right questions."
    – enorl76
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 14:27

5 Answers 5


Janeway’s primary mission is to get the crew home. If I remember correctly (which I may well not), at that point, she believes (correctly) that Starfleet considers Voyager destroyed in the Badlands, and thus isn’t searching for them, or working on ways to bring them home.

If she can inform Starfleet that they’re actually alive and stranded in the Delta Quadrant, then she no longer just has her ship and crew working to get Voyager home, but potentially the best minds in the whole of Starfleet too.

Sure, losing the Doctor would increase the risk of some or all of Voyager’s crew dying due to a medical skills deficit on board. But there are plenty of other unrelated death risks scattered around their long route home, which they might avoid once Starfleet is on the case — for example, the Borg (as you may remember from Scorpion), who aren’t going to be noticeably slowed in assimilating the entire crew by an emergency medical hologram (see Star Trek: First Contact).

And, in general, the risk of dying for the sake of the mission is something that all Starfleet officers sign up to when they join.

It’s certainly a gamble, and a bold one. But it’s exactly the sort of gamble that a captain needs to be able to take. This is why Picard never joined the Enterprise senior staff’s weekly poker game; he, like Janeway, would crush them without blinking.

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    @Paul D. Waite -- "Potentially the best minds in Starfleet" could find a way to speed up their voyage home? To me, that's like saying: "I'm going to 'invest' my life savings in buying lottery tickets, because there's a tiny chance that this will pay off big, and then I will never again need to worry about how I'm going to pay the bills!" It might work, but the odds are heavily against it, and it ain't worth throwing away a very good doctor just on the off chance that a miracle might take place as a result.
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 23:13
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    @Lorendiac: you think the odds are heavily against however many people are in Starfleet (tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands?) figuring out how to get Voyager home substantially before the 150-or-so people on board the ship manage it, given that they’re struggling to survive in entirely unknown space? If so, then sure, your position totally makes sense. Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 23:26
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    @Paul D. Waite -- "Lost cause?" I'd say "highly unlikely to pay off, so a good commander won't bet the farm on it.".I can easily imagine a conversation, 20 years after this episode (if the Doctor never returned). Janeway: "Seven of Nine! Another Starfleet vessel has found us and is ready to take us home! Decades ahead of schedule! I knew it was worth risking the Doctor! Hooray!" Seven: "Yes, Captain, but it is a pity that you and I are the only surviving members of the crew after those viruses and other sad events." Janeway: "Don't nitpick, Seven! It's the principle of the thing!"
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 23:20
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    @Lorendiac: sure. I just think the Doctor isn’t quite the farm — dying of treatable-by-the-Doctor diseases is definitely a risk, given that we see him save the crew using his skills several times, but there are plenty of other risks (unknown races/phenomena/space monsters/ship deterioration/the ever-present threat of holodeck malfunction) that also might immediately kill the entire crew as they try to get home. They do still have all of the ship’s medical technology and databases, and smart, adaptable crew members who can learn. I agree it’s a gamble, but I don’t agree that good commanders... Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 7:57
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    ...don’t make gambles as risky as this. If the main priority was to keep as many people alive as possible, they’ve have settled on the first reasonable planet they found. Trying to get home at all is a bit of a hail-mary in the first place. Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 7:59

While Paul D. Waite's answer is pretty accurate, there is one piece of information missing which I think makes the OP's question a moot point.

There is, in fact, a backup module for the doctor. I remembered it from the episode "Living Witness" where the Doctor's backup module was found. It was then used by the museum curator to re-animate the doctor, who, from his perspective, was just aboard Voyager (but that was actually a few hundred years earlier). So it must consistently back up his program.

So the crew's welfare was not an issue in this command decision.

Note: The Doc's program was self-repairing, I think that's why they sent him rather than an e-mail.
Also, it does come out in another episode that Cpt. Janeway does feel extremely guilty about stranding the crew in the Delta Quadrant, and she even starts to regret the decision she made which stranded them there.

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    “There is, in fact, a backup module for the doctor.” — True, but we don’t know when it was created. Given that Tom and Harry try and fail to create a backup Doctor during Message in a Bottle, it seems clear that a backup wasn’t available when he was sent to the Alpha Quadrant. Commented Mar 19, 2017 at 18:17
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    @n00dles -- as Paul D. Waite said, in this episode, it's made crystal-clear that, after they transmit the Doctor's program through the alien network, they do not simultaneously have a backup copy of him aboard Voyager, able to continue running things in Sickbay, the same as before. Tom Paris gets very frustrated with being expected to pinch-hit for the absent Doctor on the basis of his having had some relevant training. It is possible that, after this episode, Janeway decided to devote the necessary resources to creating and maintaining full backups of the Doctor's personality.
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Mar 20, 2017 at 23:21
  • @Lorendiac I agree. I was working from memory, and I did ask the OP if it is specifically mentioned in this episode. I'll leave this answer here anyways, as there are other relevant points in the notes. Next time I watch ST:V, I may edit it :]
    – n00dles
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 12:18
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    @n00dles -- just to clarify something. After writing the Original Post, I was offline for most of the weekend. By the time I came back to check, you'd both commented on it and posted this Answer. So I saw your comment asking about just what the episode said about a backup file, but figured it made more sense to just reply directly to your Answer.
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Mar 21, 2017 at 23:22
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    Lorendiac: "It is possible that, after this episode, Janeway decided to devote the necessary resources to creating and maintaining full backups of the Doctor's personality" Funny how its only when you almost or do lose your data that anybody ever thinks of backups??? LOL
    – enorl76
    Commented Mar 27, 2017 at 20:53
  1. After several years of isolation from their own civilization, Janeway and the rest of the crew is getting desperate to re-connect. This desperation, combined with a short time to make a decision, would make it difficult to perform an impartial risk-reward analysis.
  2. Janeway was a Chief Science Officer previous to becoming captain. This makes her particularly eager to be hands-on and to pursue scientific or technical solutions to problems. (Contrast with, for example, Picard who focuses on management + diplomatic solutions, but mostly leaves technical details to his subordinates.)
  3. Until this point in the series, the Voyager crew had successfully overcome every scientific/technical obstacle which threatened their safety. Thus Janeway would be trained to have high confidence that, as usual, their clever plan will succeed.
  4. Crewman Tom Paris has, at this point, spent several years training as a medical assistant to the doctor. While his medical skills would always be inferior to the Doctor, he would be fully capable of replacing the doctor for routine issues. Thus the doctor's loss would not be catastropic.
  • When I posted this question, I had just rewatched the episode to refresh my memory. But now my memory is rusty, so I may miss something. Still: 1) A Starfleet Captain should be capable of such analysis, even in high-pressure situations. 2. If Janeway is so scientific/technical minded, why didn't she already invest resources in maintaining a full backup of the Doctor's personality software? 3. Since I skipped Seasons 1-3, I don't know about that. 4. Tom Paris himself, in this episode, appeared to vigorously disagree with your assessment that losing the Doctor would be non-catastrophic.
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Feb 11, 2018 at 21:49
  • To rebut you:1. Captains are still human and subject to emotions, regardless of "should". 2. Replicating the doctor may have been impossible. e.g., in season 1 the crew is considering teleporting back to the alpha quadrant and the doctor says he cannot go because he is integrated with the ship. There are also ethical considerations of "backing up" a sentience. I don't remember those being discussed on ST:V, but for example, in TNG when Riker is replicated, the ethics of the federation required that he be treated as a distinct person instead of a spare body to be frozen until needed
    – Grant
    Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 22:39
  • 4. Tom was always a pilot and only grudgingly became a medical assistant when ordered. If the doctor were irrevocably lost, then Tom would be required to be a doctor full time (which he dislikes) and would hardly if ever be able to continue piloting. So his opinion is biased.
    – Grant
    Commented Feb 12, 2018 at 22:45
  • Aw, man. But I wanna fly the ship! She's not going to send the first person she recruited, for like the first half hour of the first show. He's the most important guy on the ship. And the only one qualified enough to know he's not qualified enough. +1
    – Mazura
    Commented Jan 11 at 5:14

The logical reason for sending the doctor rather than an "email" is believability. There was too much of a chance that Starfleet would regard any such messages as unconfirmed, possibly bogus or a trick. There would be no way of providing any follow up proof or answers to any questions. The doctor would be solid proof and able to provide a wide range of details about Voyager no one else would be able to do as disinformation or a trap. There was no time to create another hologram that had the rich and varied information, including even incidental personal information not available by a hacker. In short, the Doctor was the only way to prove to Starfleet that in fact Voyager had survived.

  • An interesting argument, but that goes directly against what Captain Janeway actually said in the script. She told the Doctor it was not possible to send a message in a simpler format and expect it to arrive intact at the far end of the trip. (Also, it occurs to me that Starfleet vessels must have super-elaborate encryption protocols for cases when they need to send a one-way message without being able to engage in anything resembling a lengthy two-way conversation with an Admiral sitting on a Starbase. I should think such encryptions would make the message carry a lot of weight.)
    – Lorendiac
    Commented Nov 11, 2019 at 23:52
  • I'm sure Starfleet does have have incredible encryption protocols but Voyager had been gone long enough the Janeway couldn't be sure that they hadn't been cracked. Also we are not taking into account the human factor, the overwhelming desire to let their loved one know that they were alive. Although not in the script, the desire to let their parents etc know for a fact they were alive would be enough to take any risk, even if ill advised. The constant knowledge day after day, that their families were grieving would wear on the crew. Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 17:05
  • @Lorendiac With the ability of almost anyone being able to log onto almost any terminal and access almost any system (see any episode where a password or simple access controls would have completely prevented that week's emergency), the existence of any useful encryption protocol is doubtful. Commented May 27, 2022 at 15:36
  • I don't think Janeway put that much thought into it - for one thing surely there are some codes or something she & Starfleet could use to authenticate it, but also, in another episode, they were willing to send messages through a Romulan. If believability were an issue, Janeway would surely think that Starfleet would think a Romulan capable of such a trick.
    – komodosp
    Commented Jun 27, 2022 at 9:04

Character development

OK the doctor is a computer programme, and as such it should be possible - even trivial - to make copies of him - assuming available computer capacity, but the show treats him as a singular object who must be moved from place to place. As strange as it seems to us computer experts from the 2020s (which most of us are, compared to your average 1990s author) this we must accept.

So the remaining question is - why would Janeway risk the (arguably) most indispensible member of the crew? You can attempt to justify it as the other answers have, but it's hard to get around the fact that it's poor decision making - the Doctor has used his advanced knowledge to save lives and cure diseases on quite a large number of occasions.


By not watching the first three series, you're missing out on an important nuance. That is the development of the character of the Doctor himself and the attitudes of the crew (especially Janeway) towards him. He continually strives to become regarded as a person: i.e. a proper, indepdendent crew member, rather than an automatic humanoid repair machine, and gradually over the episodes begins to achieve this. (This was given a boost by his acquisition of the "Mobile Emitter" which means he was no longer confined to holodecks).

As the crew's attitudes towards him change over time, it becomes more and more believable that he'd be sent on an away mission, and IIRC, he even indicates a desire to be sent on them. So when it gets to this episode, he - being a hologramme - is the perfect candidate for this mission.

Now I'm not saying that Janeway was right in risking such a huge asset - but the episode is kind of an acknowledgement by her (and the writers, and the Doctor himself) of his growth as a person. e.g. It's unlikely she would have sent, say, the replicator programme, or the warp-core containment subroutine.

You compare it to Kirk sending McCoy on a one-man risky away mission. However, McCoy's character trajectory was not one starting as an automaton / piece of equipment and ending up as a fully-fledged person. If it was, then I would consider it a lot more likely that Bones would have been sent on such a mission for an opportunity to "prove himself" at some point.


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